Feature Article - January 2019
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Challenge Minus Danger

Playground Advancements Help Children Experience Risk With Fewer Big Injuries

By Chris Gelbach

Playgrounds can play an important role in helping kids feel adventurous and test their limits, without exposing them to unnecessary risk. While the pendulum several years ago seemed to be swinging toward more risk-averse designs, continuing advances in surfacing, rope-based structures and other options are facilitating a trend toward more 'wow' factor without more injuries.

According to Tom Norquist, president of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), AS™ standards have always focused on eliminating the potential for life-threatening or debilitating injuries.

Norquist noted that today's playground equipment is far superior to that of the past, from a design standpoint, with safer play in mind. These advancements have included huge strides in eliminating protruding hardware and equipment, entrapping equipment and entangling situations that could cause an injury.

As a result, injuries per year have stayed relatively flat year over year, even as the nation's population has increased and the number of playgrounds have increased tremendously.

"There may be some expectations by society that are maybe even a more severe elimination of risk or chance for injury," Norquist said. "For example, is it OK to break a bone on a playground or in the act of playing? That's a question we need to answer, I think."

It's a concern that surfacing manufacturers are trying to mitigate with ongoing surface advancements. "The surfacing industry is fantastic in what they've done in creating better surfaces that last longer, that are resilient and help attenuate potential injuries from falls," Norquist said.

A Return to Adventure

In turn, these advancements may even be nudging the industry back toward more adventurous equipment. "I think there's been so many years we've gone through of equipment that's kind of sterile and bland and unchallenging, and it's kind of worked along with kids and screen time and being away from playgrounds," said Scott Liebelt, engineering and product development manager for a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of playground structures. "But I think we're seeing a trend where it's going back the other way where we're recognizing that … kids really need a risk. Sometimes it's difficult to swallow that risk if somebody gets hurt, but kids need the risk, and there's all kinds of research and experts that tell you, you need to have risk and challenge for kids to have proper development."

Playgrounds can play an important role in helping kids feel adventurous and test their limits, without exposing them to unnecessary risk.

One trend contributing to this increased perceived risk—and abetted by safer surfaces and the popularity of rope-based structures—is a move toward taller playground structures.

"Some of the equipment is getting taller by design. Some of the surfacing is now attenuating falls from a much higher height than in the past," Norquist said. "So when you put the improved surfacing with some of the more challenging equipment, in theory, you have the same standard level of care."

According to Kevin Rambaud, regional sales director for a Germany-based manufacturer of rope-focused playground structures, his company typically keeps the fall height of its structure under 10 feet.

"I think people are seeing that it's a perceived risk—it's not a hazard," Rambaud said. "And kids are actually in more control when they're climbing because they're more focused and there's always two or three points connected at one time when they're climbing a rope structure, so they tend to be safer."

Liebelt noted that manufacturers are also creating perceived risk through the incorporation of lateral climbing. His company is also offering rope climbers with wall meshes of rope that are angled as opposed to strictly vertical to allow climbers with less upper-body strength to experience the risk and challenge of vertical climbing.

Mitigating Equipment Risks

According to 2009 data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the top four equipment pieces associated with injuries between 2001 and 2008 were climbers (23 percent), swings (22 percent), slides (17 percent) and overhead ladders (9 percent).

Falls and equipment failure were involved in 67 percent of incidents, with fractures being responsible for 36 percent of injuries. To mitigate these risks, the CPSC warns parents and daycare providers that children's plastic climbing equipment should never be placed on wood or cement floors, even if covered with carpet, or on other hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt. The National Recreation and Park Association also adds surfaces such as packed earth and grass to the list in its Playground Safety Fact Sheet, while adding that acceptable surfaces can include "wood fiber and wood chips, sand, pea gravel, synthetic and rubber tiles, poured-in-place rubber, shredded rubber and mats."

"Surfacing is really the number-one problem that causes injuries," Liebelt said. "If you review some of the injury data from CPSC, it's always falls to the surface. And it's often hard to get exact information, but most times it's inadequate surfacing down there. So anything we can get out that says to make sure the surfacing is adequately maintained is worth a mention."